Why is teaching still 'female-unfriendly'?

Periods, pregnancy, menopause: it's tough on the female body. Schools must support their teachers, says Yvonne Williams

Teacher wellbeing: Women teachers have to cope with periods, pregnancy and the menopause – but schools aren't set up to provide support, says Yvonne Williams

Here we are on the verge of a new decade in teaching.  In a new spirit of openness, we’re at last realising the importance of making sanitary products available to adolescent girls to enable them to attend school every day of the month.  Yet increasingly we have one of the most female-unfriendly environments to work in because of the ways in which the school day has been restructured.

Workload and presenteeism are part of the reason why teaching has become so tough on the wellbeing of any teacher, as shown in Emma Kell’s most recent article.  But it’s particularly tough on the female body at all stages of our lives. 

Watching several colleagues struggling with the structure of the school day, I constantly marvel that we manage to recruit and retain as many women teachers as we do.  For some time now it’s been obvious that having small children and a teaching career is a mismatch made in hell.  The colonisation of school holidays with planning and preparation, later finishing times of the school day and some work-filled weekends don’t provide the oases of family time that the profession used to.   

Periods don’t just happen to teenage girls – they occur in all women of childbearing age.  They are an inconvenience at best, but an embarrassment when the compacted nature of the timetabled day leads to us seeing pupils in break times, lunchtimes and after school.  Setting up complicated classroom resources eats away those valuable minutes needed for “comfort breaks”.  Classrooms are not usually close to staff toilets; and, whilst everyone feels the strain, it’s women who struggle most.  Ann Mroz’s article on toilet provision opens up a difficult topic, but it’s by no means the last word on it.

Periods, pregnancy and menopause: helping women teachers

Women in at all stages of pregnancy find the school day a strain that can become an intolerable burden.  Morning sickness is not confined to the earliest part of the day – would that it were!  The pattern of nausea differs from woman to woman and pregnancy to pregnancy.  Understandably, many teachers in the first 12 weeks are reluctant to share the good news with their colleagues; and it is in the first trimester that they are most likely to be anything from hampered to seriously debilitated by sickness and faintness.

School days that begin with early meetings are a near impossibility for women attacked by nausea first thing.  The increasing tendency to extend the school day with meetings, revision sessions and events ensures that those whose symptoms get worse as the day wears on are at the end of their tether by the time they set foot on home soil.

Split shifts, whereby the school ends at its normal time and resumes several hours later with a school event, are enough to seriously disrupt anyone’s diet. The problem with split shifts is that they don’t really provide the rest needed: they merely prolong work mode. The gap between school and event is stressful rather than restful, occupied by work or extra travel.

Having a snack to keep going and then a meal at home leads to weight gain and unhealthy dietary choices.  Going without food from midday until 9pm or even 10pm is pretty much untenable, too, and allowing a pregnant woman to go without food can bring on sickness, and result in her hasty departure home to cope with the fallout in the merciful privacy of her own home. 

For women returning to work after maternity leave, school hours are still problematic. Those still feeding their babies will really struggle to cope if at school too long. Expressing milk is an embarrassing and uncomfortable experience. Having to wait too long to feed a baby is as emotionally distressing as it is physically uncomfortable. 

And for women undergoing the worst of menopausal symptoms, school days are a struggle from start to finish.  School buildings can be too hot, and long hours add to the stress of a body – and mind – that feel seriously out of control anyway.

In short, it’s time to change.  The obvious thing is to limit working hours to a manageable workload for everyone.  In among this has to come much greater tolerance of the needs of women at all stages of their reproductive lives.  And from that realisation there has to come effective action.

The mind may be centred on educating the next generation, but unfortunately the female body is obsessed with its prime reproductive function.  It’s taken decades for teachers to bring even some of the biological issues out into the open. How much longer before the system adapts to accommodate the majority of the profession?

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama at a school in the South of England

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